Tonight the wonderful country-folk band that plays throughout the film performs at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery as part of a national tour.
It's easy to forget that this movie came close to not happening at all; it was largely due to the determination of its director and producers -- and some good luck -- that it saw the light of day. Here, in an exclusive for The Misread City, is how it happened.
Much of the praise that greeted Winter’s Bone – Debra Granik’s lean, mean tale of a determined girl on the trail of her reckless father – focused on its setting in Missouri’s poor, isolated Ozark Mountains: This was not the kind of film Hollywood is often accused of making, in which a film crew condescends to or caricatures a region far from Brentwood or the Upper West Side.
“The last thing we wanted to be,” says producer Alix Madigan-Yorkin, “were tourists dropped into the Ozarks. Every aspect of the life was really well observed before the production.”
Part of what led to the nuanced treatment of the setting, oddly, was the long uphill climb to financing. “The fact that we couldn’t find funding for three years,” says Anne Rosellini, both a writer and a producer on the project, “was our best friend.”
As the New York-based filmmakers – who had come together over their love of Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone novella and the subsequent scripts -- waited for this or that source to come through, “We kept going down to the Ozarks to do research – with our d.p., bringing back look books,” that captured the region’s cabins, ponds and hillsides, and the beauty that survived the poverty and ravages of crystal meth.
“If this thing was going to convey some tone and flavor,” says Granik, “we needed to get our asses down there. And to marry the screenplay to lived reality. Find a house, a school, that [heroine] Ree would really inhabit.” There was no way to rush it."
“We were able to take a really deep look,” Rosellini continues. “And we shot the film on location, on people’s private land – that took years to line up. Two New York women can’t just show up and do what we did.”
Winter’s Bone has also drawn enormous acclaim for Jennifer Lawrence’s staring role. The Louisville native plays the implacable teenage girl who marches over fences and across frozen ground, defying violent neighbors in an effort to track down her father, who is wanted on bond and quite possibly dead. This aspect of the film, too, would have turned out very differently if its funding path had been more conventional.
“We went through the standard way of trying to get this off the ground,“ Madigan-Yorkin says of the early stages of development. “Trying to attract an actor who could draw funding.” One early potential funder, “was pushing us toward names that were more familiar.”
When expected financing fell through, on Halloween 2007, it was devastating, says Granik. “This company eventually said, ‘We’ll lose our shirt.’ It was truly dreary at the end.” She felt such a sting at her American story being rejected by American financiers that she wished she could flee to Europe. “You feel like one of those disenfranchised jazz musicians. We felt throttled down.”
But the financing they eventually landed – which was modest -- offered a major advantage: “We could cast who we wanted, Madigan-Yorkin says. ” And for the viewer, “You could disappear into the film: Actors faces and names weren’t jumping out at you.”
By the time $2 million in funding came through – mostly from a group of New York based private investors – the team was ready to make the film their own way.
The resulting film developed significant buzz after its first Sundance screening, attracting Roadside Attractions to distribute and winning the Grand Jury Prize.
Winter’s Bone – which was on the regional film festival circuit for months -- also won something that may be more valuable, Madigan-Yorkin says. “This earned most of its money in the heartland. The people in Missouri, where we shot it, really embraced it. Usually you make your money in the standard art house circuit,” in big cities on the coasts.
Rosellini credits that resonance to the respect they showed that setting and the time they had to sink into it. “You get financing from a production company and you don’t get the luxury of that kind of research,” she says. “If Debra and I could have been in development forever… That’s the most fun time. In this case there was no one to tell us no.”
“If we’d gotten the funding earlier – and we were pretty far down the path with someone – who knows.”